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BIPOC Youth Learn Map-Making to Build Disaster Resilience

Because natural disasters disproportionately affect underserved communities, middle school students in Savannah, Ga., are learning to use mapping tools to design infrastructure changes that could protect their neighborhoods.

Students in the Youth Advocacy for Resilience to Disasters (YARDs) program in Savannah, Ga.
MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. In a special series, the Innovation of the Month is currently focusing on the award-winning and innovative projects championed by MetroLab’s member universities and civic partners that advanced to Stage 2 of the NSF Civic Innovation Challenge. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

In this month’s installment of the CIVIC Stage 2 Innovation of the Month series, we highlight a project called Visualizing Resilience: BIPOC Youth Advocacy through Mapmaking from Savannah, Ga. The project is empowering young people to challenge and redefine the stories that maps tell about their lives and communities in a bid to make their communities more resilient in the face of disasters. MetroLab’s Elias Gbadamosi spoke with the team’s civic and academic partners about their engagement process and implementation plan in Stage 2 of the Civic Innovation Challenge.

Elias Gbadamosi: Can you tell us about your project and what the origin was?

Yanni Loukissas: In this program, we are developing a curriculum based on previous work our co-principal investigator Nisha Botchwey did to develop a youth advocacy program, called Youth Engagement and Action for Health (YEAH!), for middle school students around healthy communities. The new program will focus on disaster resilience and integrating community mapping workshops using Map Spot. Map Spot came out of a collaboration between data artist Jer Thorp and me to develop local spaces for grass-roots map-making, where people can creatively and collaboratively explore data. Map Spot empowers people to understand, but also challenge and even redefine the stories that maps and data tell about their lives and about the places they live. Youth will use Map Spot to develop and present infrastructure recommendations that can make their communities more resilient in the face of intersecting disasters.

Allen Hyde: This project also builds on a larger initiative at Georgia Tech, the Smart Sea Level Sensors project in Savannah, where we developed a strong relationship with the nonprofit Harambee House, Savannah State University and the city of Savannah Office of Sustainability.

Through the planning grant phase, we identified that youth were a sizable yet vulnerable demographic in Savannah's West Side neighborhoods like Hudson Hill, and Harambee House prioritizes training youth to become future leaders in the fields of racial and environmental justice. We reached out to Savannah and Chatham County Public School System to pilot our program designed to help youth become advocates for disaster resilience and preparedness in their community: Youth Advocacy for Resilience to Disasters (YARDs).

They will present these recommendations to local leaders to advocate for change, which showed a strong success rate with YEAH! The curriculum will then be shared nationally to be replicated in other communities. Overall, we hope that this project improves learning about disaster resilience and preparedness among youth, inspires change among the families of the youth to prepare for disasters, leads to new investments in infrastructure to improve community resilience, and builds new youth leaders around disaster resilience.

Students in the Youth Advocacy for Resilience to Disasters (YARDs) program in Savannah Ga.
Gbadamosi: Why does the project focus on educating and empowering middle school-age participants specifically and not a different demographic?

Meltem Alemdar: Middle school years are critical for young people. Research shows that early adolescence and identity development during this period is an important time to intervene to promote positive outcomes. It is also a time when youth start thinking more critically about the community and develop a connection with the community. YARDs expands on research by focusing on positive youth development, helping them to gain a voice.

Gbadamosi: Who are your project partners and what expertise do they bring to the project?

Hyde: Our project deepens and extends existing partnerships formed over the last three years under the umbrella of the Smart Sea Level Sensors project team. This team is made up of researchers from Georgia Tech and Savannah State University who have been working with the city of Savannah and Chatham County to improve and deploy a network of sea level sensors across the region, with the goal of improving emergency management planning and response, and to advance coastal flood resilience. It also includes the Harambee House.

The project team collectively brings to this question academic expertise in civil engineering, climate science, digital media, environmental justice, public health, sociology and urban planning, as well as local expertise in community-based research, education and policy. The Harambee House and its founder, co-principal investigator Mildred McClain, bring decades of experience in racial and environmental justice activism and community education and research, which will be vital to the success of this project. Finally, the residents who will participate in this project best understand what resilience means within their own communities.

Gbadamosi: The project has a huge focus on training and engaging Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) youth. What specific intersections are there between people’s racial/ethnic identity and how disaster affects them?

Hyde: We engage BIPOC youth in the area specifically because they are often more physically vulnerable than other residents and dependent upon their adult caregivers. They are also routinely overlooked in disaster recovery efforts unless they are specifically sought out by service providers. Finally, the trauma caused by disasters can have devastating effects on the psychological and psychosocial development of youth, particularly in cases where dislocation uproots friends, family, and other networks or when they have school or academic progress disrupted.

More generally, front-line coastal communities are under increased threat from intersecting disasters, both natural and man-made, and BIPOC residents, especially youth, can be particularly vulnerable in these situations and their aftermath. Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, heat waves, heavy precipitation and flooding are projected to rise in their incidence and overall severity over the coming decades due to climate change. Meanwhile, industries operating in ports are polluting the air and soil of nearby neighborhoods, and the negative health effects caused by industrial pollution can be exacerbated or redistributed by hurricanes and flooding.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has created another acute public health threat, exacerbated by widespread economic hardship. Indeed, the pandemic has illustrated how low-income communities, in particular BIPOC communities, are differentially impacted by disasters. Depending on their severity and extent, the impacts of compounded disasters can include loss of life, economic and material damage, physical and mental health effects, changes in labor markets, cultural shifts, and disruptions to education. We assert, as do others, that even natural disasters are not simply acts of nature.

The societal impacts of disasters are in part a result of social and infrastructural histories, which have created acute vulnerabilities for a subset of people and places, especially for historically marginalized communities of color in the South. Our project focuses on the West Side of Savannah, Ga., because lower-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods in the area are facing disproportionate effects from compounding disasters.

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Gbadamosi: In what unique ways can the advocacy of vulnerable youth impact disaster resilience planning and policy?

Loukissas: This project aims to create a space where BIPOC youth can use map-making to develop disaster resilience proposals for consideration by planners and policymakers in City Hall. However, the project has another agenda beyond immediate planning and policy change. We seek to enable the development of self- and community-efficacy in youth and their families. This means enabling participants to develop their own claims about disasters and resilience independent of those that originate in City Hall. Their claims may not always result in planning and policy changes. But we believe that learning to make claims about the places they live and supporting them with data are important skills and, moreover, can enhance feelings of capability and determination that are necessary for truly sustainable formal and informal changes in how the community deals with disasters.

Gbadamosi: What are some of the most striking insights the team has gained about youth advocacy so far?

Alemdar: Youth must be given resources and support to share their stories and advocate for the things that are important to them. Youth advocacy has been shown to support positive psychosocial, emotional and developmental outcomes. In particular, for youth of color, advocacy allows them to actively address inequalities that affect their lives, and in turn helps them to develop agency, self-efficacy and optimism for change. The foundational research on health behavior-based youth advocacy showed improvements in youth attitudinal and behavioral changes, self-efficacy and collective efficacy. For example, because of advocacy activities, youth displayed greater belief in their capacity to complete projects and realize specified outcomes.

Nisha Botchwey: In my previous work, youth advocacy was applied to a healthy eating and physical activity promotion program as a part of the YEAH! project. YEAH! has not only positively impacted self- and collective efficacy for participants, but has also led to real change in policy, systems and the built environment. For example, in Lihue, Hawaii, youth advocates proposed park renovations to their county council and received $80,000 to support planning and renovations. This suggests that youth advocacy can be geared more explicitly toward planning and infrastructure-based outcomes, as long as it is also still connected to youth empowerment and community change.

Gbadamosi: What plan does the team have for transferring the project framework, including the map-making tool and custom curriculum, to other at-risk communities across Georgia and the U.S. at large?

Botchwey: Visualizing Resilience will initially be implemented with a self-sustaining map-making and advocacy program for BIPOC youth with Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools. This program will also support the development of a disaster resilience network. During the dissemination phase of our project, the YARDs clubs will present their work to a variety of local experts and leaders, with invitations to those like Chatham County Emergency Management Assistant Director Randall Mathews and Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who champion the Savannah Youth Council. These figures will interact with youth initially through the Civics 101 module (part of the YARDs curriculum) and then later through the workshops and youth presentations. These decision-makers can participate as advisers and later advocates for the continuation of youth advocacy for disaster resilience beyond the timeline of this proposal.

This approach to BIPOC youth-led map-making and advocacy will also be translated for other communities throughout the state and around the globe. We will create an open access online toolkit that introduces both Map Spot and YARDs. For example, the YARDs curriculum will be digitally adapted on an open source learning management system. It will include self-paced interactive modules and can be adjusted to fit the appropriate local social and ecological contexts of disasters where the curriculum is implemented. After this one-year pilot project, regular iterations of this program will lead to both adjustments to the online and in-person curricula.

Alemdar: We will also share lessons learned in community meetings, blogs, videos and on social media platforms, which will be helpful for many other communities who are interested in implementing YARDs.
Elias Gbadamosi is civic research communications manager for Metrolab Network, responsible for the organization's communication, outreach and engagement programs. His work and interests converge at the intersection of civic communication, civic engagement and policy research.